Before joining Conservation International, I spent 10 years at a nonprofit working to alleviate poverty and hunger around the world.
It was exciting, challenging work and there were plenty of wins — an enterprising farmer in post-conflict Azerbaijan who, with a little guidance and a loan, created a booming business for himself; a single, HIV-positive mother of four in Uganda, who with some food assistance and job training, moved her family out of tenement housing and enrolled her kids in school.
But at some point, I came to realize that if the world continues on its current path of environmental degradation, all of the well-intentioned poverty alleviation, health and education efforts around the world would be insufficient. .
As fields become so degraded they’re no longer productive, intensified agricultural practices ruin waterways and weather patterns shift and intensify — resulting in increased droughts, floods and violent storms — the impact on the world’s poorest is devastating, and often one of life and death.
The good news is that some of these trends can be mitigated or even reversed, while still creating economic opportunity and improving food security — but only when we recognize that nature underpins everything else.
I joined Conservation International 2.5 years ago, because this is exactly what the organization is doing — providing the science and tools as well as the real-life examples to help policymakers, businesses, development agencies other investors consider the value of nature and the tradeoffs and impacts that flow from their decisions.
There are wins here too — improved living conditions for more than 1 million people in Ecuador who were compensated for being good forest stewards and the creation of a sustainably-managed swath of the Pacific Ocean larger than the U.S., Canada and Mexico combined, which will support ecotourism and other economic opportunities for the inhabitants of 15 island nations.
But many still do not recognize nature’s role in our well-being, and with the Earth’s population about to hit the 7-billion mark, the task ahead of us is even more daunting.
Whenever I feel like I’m swimming against the tide, I think back to a mother of two — like me — living in a one-room house in Ethiopia with few possessions and no economic opportunities, desperate to make a better life for her children, and the fire is lit from within. No matter how insurmountable the challenge seems, I’m up for it, and I know that safeguarding our environment is the best way to tackle it.
Heather Luca is the senior director of creative services on CI’s communications team.